Messages from Beyond

Digital afterlife messages from beyond

Ben Earwicker, Garrison Photography

I love reading through and reminding myself of the messages received from DBS after he died. When I say that, I don’t mean ‘other realm’ kind of messages delivered by a psychic or similar. Instead, I’m referring to handwritten notes or cards written by him and addressed to me which I received after his death.

They provided tremendous comfort and still do. Which has made me think about how I should leave messages to friends and family for when my time comes. It’s not an easy thing to think about but if you’re making a digital will that addresses practical items such as password transfer to next of kin or instructions on what to do with your digital information, including a personal message with this information may be a logical next step.

 

Messages from DBS

In previous posts, I’ve mentioned that my brother preferred committing thoughts down by pen and paper as opposed to using email or social. We weren’t reliable communicators but despite this, I received multiple messages from him over a period of several weeks after he died.

The first message I received from DBS was two days after his death. Sitting in my mailbox, was a postcard that had been sent several weeks previously but took its time to arrive because he’d sent it from a very remote overseas location. Later there was the card he’d scrawled to me in Afghanistan but that he hadn’t had a chance to send which came back with his personal effects.

Months later when sorting through his papers at home, I came across his ‘unofficial’ will, a piece of dated A4 paper in his beautiful, black ink writing stating his intention for his estate. While mostly formal in nature, he’d included a personal message to me. I was touched and moved for days afterwards.

Finally, his diary revealed what I hadn’t been able to discover from Google because of their stance they took (at that time) of not sharing an account holder’s data with next of kin without going through legal proceedings. When DBS died, one of the first things I wanted to know at the time and eventually obsessed about, was whether or not he had read my emails that I’d sent to him while he was stationed in Afghanistan. Somehow, not knowing if he had received them meant that they started to represent something more significant for me; whether or not he knew that he was in my thoughts and that I loved him.

When I eventually brought myself to read his diary months later, I saw an entry dated 21 October that opened with…. ”Today, I received another lovely email from Emily….”

Words cannot describe how I felt at that time. It seemed as though I had received a personal answer from him to the question that had hounded me for a significant period of time.

Learn how to transition your email and personal data to next of kin using Google Inactive Manager.

Things to consider when working with digital services offering to send messages to loved ones

DBS hadn’t planned the way in which I received messages from him after he died with the exception of his handwritten will. I feel fortunate though that I received them and the emotional benefits are unquantifiable. On each occasion, his notes gave me a real sense of happiness and I almost felt as if he was visiting me in some way. I still glow when I think about them and value these mementos.

For anyone considering estate planning, I’d recommend including this kind of personal touch for friends and family for conveying love and providing comfort.

Given my own experience, I’m a fan of planning with handwritten notes however, there are now a wealth of digital services that you can work with to leave messages for loved ones with. A note of caution though. If you plan to go digital, check with the company to check their stability and financial status. A few companies I’ve researched from 2007 have been acquired or simply shut up shop, such can be the fleeting, temporary nature of digital. Also beware of the organisations that don’t have a long term vision or plan for their business. You want to be confident when signing up to a service that it will comfortably outlive you and honour your wishes in the future.

In all dealings with companies assisting you with digital afterlife services, I’d suggest researching with the following questions in mind:

  • How long is their commitment to providing digital services? Are they thinking day-to-day terms or over fifty years, hundred years?
  • What is their financial status?
  • What will happen to customers’ planning services in the event that they fold/are acquired?
  • Where how/will they share your final message? If it’s via a third party social networking platform, what happens to your message if the platform no longer exists?

It’s a new digital realm so it’s wise to do your background research. And spend some time understanding terms and conditions, particularly around what kind of jurisdictional rules may apply to you from a legal perspective and on what basis the company will share private data.

If you’re not confident about a digital service, do your own video recording and give it to your solicitor or a close family member or friend to look after while attending to your estate planning. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Based on my own experience, a simple handwritten note placed somewhere safely or with someone can make all the difference to those left behind.

NEXT ON THIS: DIGITAL AFTERLIFE MESSAGE SERVICES

How to give someone access to your Google email and data; manage your digital afterlife

Google Inactive Manager is a recent introduction by Google to allow account holders to share their email and data with a nominated next of kin or friends after they have died or have stopped using Google services. A previous post looks at the pros and cons of using Google Inactive Manager and why you might want to do so. Here’s a step by step guide to help you this up this function…

Setting up Google Inactive Manager

Go to your Google homepage, click on your profile or avatar picture at the top right hand side of the page and select ‘Account’ after your name. You’ll need to be logged in to set up this feature.

Once in your ‘Account’ page, select the ‘Data tools’ option at the top of the page and then click on ‘Set up Inactive Google Manager’.

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You’ll be presented with the Google Inactive Manager dashboard. Click on ‘Set up’ to get started.

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First you’ll need to provide a mobile phone number. Click on the ‘Add mobile phone number’. The system is intuitive so it doesn’t matter if you type in a zero after the country code or leave spaces between numbers.

Once done, hit the ‘Send verification code’ button – it should send a code to your phone via SMS which consists of a series of numbers or letters and numbers. Add to the ‘Verify number’ box which appears and click ‘Confirm’.

You can also add another email address to receive updates or alerts at this point.

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Once you’ve provided your contact details, select a timeout period on the Google Inactive Manager homepage. This means the length of time that you leave your Google account inactive, i.e. the period during which you do not log into Google for email, search, Google+, Drive or any of the Google tools. The minimum period is 3 months, the maximum period is 18 months. Think of the feature you most commonly use on Google and base a time period around that.

Remember though, Google only knows that you’ve used your account if you have logged into your account. If you use Google search everyday but are not signed in then you check your email every six months which you have to sign in for, Google will register the six month email activity on your account but not the search.

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Next, select ‘Add trusted contact’. You can nominate up to 10 contacts who will have three months to download your data once the account is inactive. Here’s where you can enter the email details of the person(s) you nominate to receive your data. Check the ‘Share my data with this contact option’ to ensure that they are able to receive the data later. If there is someone that you don’t want to have access to your email or other Google data but would like to send them a message, you can add a note for them at this point which the recipient will receive when the timeout period has finished.

 add trusted contact

Select the Google data that you would like your nominated person(s) to download. As well as making sure your contact details are correct, you’ll need to verify the correct phone number for your nominated contact(s). You’ll also need to update your contact’s mobile phone if this changes over time so that they will be able to access your account once it has become inactive. You can pick and choose what your nominated contact(s) will be able to download and access.

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After hitting the ‘Next’ button, you’ll be taken to a page where you can leave a message for the person you’ve nominated to receive your Google data. While setting up Google Inactive Manager is practical, the message doesn’t have to be. It’s a good opportunity to leave a thoughtful message behind for someone who is grieving. What would they want to hear? Anything you want them to know? What you say could make a difference to them.

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Google Inactive Manager also allows you to set up an auto-response to incoming email once your Google account has become inactive.

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Lastly, you decide what happens to your Google account once your outlined actions have been completed. Would you like the account to be deleted? Google Inactive Manager includes this option which will also remove any public comments/data you have, for instance on YouTube or Google+.

opt_delete_google_account_digitalafterlife_deathOnce you’ve hit ‘Enable’, your Google settings are confirmed. Remember, you are able to update your settings at any point. Visit this earlier post on things to consider when setting up Google Inactive Manager.

Is digital eroding our past?

Our new digital identities mostly exist in the hands of third parties and for many these days, memories reside in email and social media. Our mementos of events are digital photographs, or a casual comment posted online. These seem fleeting in the moment, but can quickly gain significance as life changes occur. While we assume their digital nature makes them always accessible, they may not end up being everlasting.

The people in our family have always hoarded personal mementos. Correspondence, photos, interesting lists, old membership cards and random but significant bits of paper – we have thrown these haphazard fragments of personal history into cardboard boxes, under beds and in drawers. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been sorting through forty years of these memory boxes.

Among them, I discovered perhaps the first recorded account of my thirteen year old self winding up my five year old brother. I was at boarding school at the time, and written letters were my main connection to home. The distance taught us the value of letter writing, between each other, family and friends. Given that we kept most of these letters, I was able to eventually piece together this incident from three perspectives, with letters from my mother providing a third perspective. His response to my paper trolling was assertive while at the same time, totally adorable and generous. And my mother’s intervention demonstrated her humorous side in how she decided to adjudicate the situation.

Preserving memories_ written v. digital afterlife

Looking back on correspondence from the past has been fun, comforting and enlightening. It documents so much about our family and our relationships with each other. Old letters have been a joy to look through and reminisce over, sometimes providing a reminder of situations that I hadn’t thought about for years. Sometimes, they recount events that I have no memory of at all.

I’m not sure when I stopped writing letters, however my brother continued to be an avid correspondent with ink and paper.

It was a significant occasion when he got his first email account as I had been encouraging him to do so for a while. In one of his many boxes, I uncovered a printed copy of our first email conversation from the late 1990s.

The email address I was using at that time was also my first email account, which until a fortnight or so ago I hadn’t thought about in ten years. But after trying to access it again to look for any other emails between us, I discovered that the email provider had been acquired, renamed and that my account no longer existed.

Not only have I lost this period of history, I’ve lost messages from the future. For example, at the opening of the London Millennium Dome, visitors were asked to provide their email addresses accompanied by a short message before leaving the exhibition. The Dome said they would send these notes back to their owners decades later as a reminder of what they had been thinking about that day.

I won’t receive that obnoxious message from my younger self outlining what a disappointment I felt the Dome had been and I suspect few of the thousands of visitors to the Dome will receive theirs. Given most people will have changed their email address at least once since then, I imagine the bounce rate on that particular mailout – if they even bother – will be close to 100%. Yet in my boxes of memories I still have the postcard and novelty over sized pencil that I bought from the Dome gift shop, items that on face value are junk but they’ve served a purpose of sparking distinct memories of that day.

Preserving memories_written v digital afterlife

My point is that I’ve consistently kept physical mementos, while I haven’t applied the same consideration to digital history and correspondence. I have a rich mine of private correspondence which provides a recorded history up to my early 20s. But as soon as I moved to email, it almost immediately runs dry, as my communications quickly moved online.

A fifteen year gap to now clearly demonstrates a casual attitude toward personal email archiving. Of course, notes and correspondence have been captured in other ways, for instance on Facebook and even MySpace walls or apps such as Foursquare or Twitter. But these tend to be public interactions so their nature is less personal.

In the past decade, I’ve moved from Caramail to Hotmail to Yahoo to Gmail for social use, as well as a multitude of work email addresses. Unfortunately, some of these accounts are now lost and no longer accessible. The speed in which technology platforms change means that it’s important to archive personal conversations as they happen. Today Facebook and Gmail might seem immortal, but there’s every reason to question whether they’ll still be around in a decade. Or whether they’ll make it easy to uncover these past memories. Their purpose may be entirely different.

While I’m not suggesting that every single personal email conversation must be stored, this recent archiving experience has highlighted the value of a system – even one that is chaotic and ad-hoc – to continually capture personal messages and notes so they aren’t lost to my future self. A new way of communicating requires a new way of archiving. For the email accounts I can still access, I plan to rummage through them like old cardboard boxes and recover personal conversations. Maybe, I’ll be able to re-connect with people from the past.

If you do a search on email archiving, there’s plenty of advice on how to manage old accounts and email management. Here’s a wrap up of articles that I’ve found useful. There are also multiple digital services that now offer email management or archiving components in their offerings. If you have other tips to add, please do so below. All ideas are welcome.

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